keeping it wholesome

First, something quick: If you’re an author, editor, or literary agent, you’ll love this.

My friend Mo Bunnell tracks how he spends his time. As a result, he knows exactly how long it took to write and publish his book, soup to nuts. I was involved and I still found this data fascinating. Watch Mo lay out the numbers.

Mo’s a wholesome guy with a wholesome message. Perfect segue into today’s topic.

There’s a quote that goes around, as certain quotes tend to do. It boils down to this: “Before you say something, ask yourself: Is it true? Is it kind? Is it necessary?”

Man, this advice comes in handy—when I remember to use it. And I’m not the only one who likes it. It crops up everywhere. I first saw it in a store, unattributed on a sign behind the cash register. I’ve spotted it many times since, both online and off. Doesn’t really matter who originally said it, but people being people, we still want to know. Einstein, Mother Theresa, Martin Luther King, Gandhi: It doesn’t quite fit any of the usual suspects. Usually attributed to Rumi, it crops up in print in 1848 without attribution to the 13th-century Persian poet. Who knows—maybe Buddha? One philosopher goes down the rabbit hole, if you’re curious.

What is it that we’re trying to avoid when we subject our words to these three “gates of speech,” as they’re sometimes called? A misstep, clearly, but what kind?

I think a lot about gates—of speech, of thought, of behavior—because I work in the advice business. You have to protect your head. There are a lot of experts out there, many are extremely persuasive, and some are just not to be trusted, to put it mildly.

You might think I’d have developed an immunity to bad advice by now. Bill Haast deliberately exposed himself to snake venom for over sixty years and he lived to a hundred. His snake-proof blood was eventually used to save a number of snakebite victims. Having been exposed to snake oil for over fifteen years myself, my blood should be good for something, too. But I’m still susceptible. Deep down, I’m a sucker like everybody else. I need a good gate to insulate me from the bad advice I’m forced to expose myself to in the practice of my professional occupation.

I’ve developed a bit of a radar over the years, sure, but I’ve had a hard time articulating exactly what I’m reacting to until now. Here’s the gate I’ve settled on. Maybe you’ll find it useful, too. It’s simple, but I’ve found it holds up to everything I can throw at it:

Is it wholesome?

The next time you listen to a podcast or watch a TED talk or receive a piece of sales copy via mailing list, stop before clicking the Buy button and ask yourself that question: Is this advice wholesome? If not, run, no matter how compelling the evidence or glamorous its deliverer.

What do I mean by “wholesome”? As Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once said about identifying something unwholesome, “I know it when I see it.” To put it baldly, wholesome advice stands on its own. It bears the brunt of common sense.

Take reading. Reading books is a wholesome activity. If I were to suggest to you that you read more books—which, sure, you should—you can take that advice at face value. I don’t need to offer you a testimonial from an influencer, a cherry-picked research study, or an obscure but fascinating anecdote drawn from a 19th-century newspaper. You can just nod to yourself and think, “Dave’s right. I should read more. What’s the harm?”

If I were to go beyond that and do the whole thought leader thing, layering on studies about how reading novels builds empathy and so on, that wouldn’t hurt anything per se. But, and here’s the key thing, if the study in question turns out to have been done on twelve graduate students forty years ago, or misinterpreted thanks to a shoddy understanding of statistics, you wouldn’t have been an idiot for reading more books. Reading stands on its own. It’s a wholesome activity, right there on the face of it.

Recently, a viral story went around arguing that flossing—flossing!—has no scientifically proven benefits. As Snopes points out, this has a lot more to do with the fact that there’s no Big Floss incentivizing the right studies. I mean, why would anyone fund flossing research? Have you not seen the gunk that comes out of there? Floss your damn teeth—it’s wholesome AF!

Writing in your journal. Going for a walk in the park. Hugging a loved one. All wholesome activities.

Watching hours of TV alone while eating pint after pint of ice cream. Staying out late to party the night before the big job interview. Spreading malicious rumors about someone you resent. Not wholesome.

Those are the obvious ones, but the test still serves for all kinds of advice you might encounter. Take the personal-development-organization-turned-cult NXIVM. (If you haven’t seen the episode of Cults and Extreme Beliefs about NXIVM yet, The Cut has assembled some of the more disturbing details revealed during the recent court case here.)

I have to admit, I’m familiar with a number of other organizations that look eerily similar to NXIVM as it was prior to all the branding of human beings like cattle et cetera. Where did things go south? I don’t know for sure, but I can guarantee that at a certain point, after the initial advice to “be your best self” but a little bit before the “line up to be branded like cattle,” the members of NXIVM were offered some unwholesome advice from their persuasive, though sociopathic, leader. It was at this point, again, before the branding, that my little heuristic might have been useful. I’m pretty sure even Chloe from Smallville knew that recording people’s secrets as “collateral” to keep them loyal was an unwholesome activity, yet she did it anyway. However self-actualized she became through NXIVM, the ends did not end up justifying the unwholesome means.

In fact, I would argue they never do, no matter how impressive those ends might look on Instagram or how many people on Facebook swear by them. It’s just not worth the risk, people. Wholesome is as wholesome does. Sort of a karma type deal, know what I mean? Better to accept my average American lifespan of 78.7 or so years with my average American BMI and my average American middle-class success than to endlessly chase awesomeness and abs in all kinds of nutty ways because A Study Someone Else Says They Read Told Me to Do It.

Think about all the wacky fads that have come and gone over the years when it comes to diet and exercise alone. Of course, we can make fun of crazy diet recipes from the 1970s, but at the time people took those very seriously. Likewise, many of us today accept other, equally unwholesome, advice just as easily when it’s peddled persuasively by various extremely popular podcasts and newsletters.

So little of any of this advice holds up to the single criterion of wholesomeness. Take “cryotherapy” as one of many examples. Spending hundreds of dollars to stand in a “cryochamber” being blasted by subzero air might aid “recovery,” whatever that is, but without the star testimonials and the science-y evidence, does that sound like a wholesome Friday night to you? Of course not. And, of course, when cryotherapy turns out to not do much of anything—aside from kill somebody that one time—people will spend exactly one minute wondering how anybody fell for such a ridiculous notion…until the next fad rolls along.

I offer this tool to protect you. I also share it in the hopes that, as you construct your own well-meaning advice for the people you serve, you subject your own suggestions to the same acid test. For all our experience and expertise, we can never be 100-percent certain that our suggestions are perfect, but we can certainly ask ourselves if they are wholesome.

Will your book pass this gate?

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